When the first segment of a controversial new highway that will connect Montgomery and Prince George's counties opens Wednesday, Maryland will have built what was once considered impossible in Washington's congested suburbs: a six-lane, multibillion-dollar toll road across fragile streams, a stone's throw from hundreds of homes.
The full cost of the Intercounty Connector - the exchange of woodlands for asphalt; the effects on residents along its path; debt payments that could require raising tolls throughout the state - will be analyzed for years. The immediate question is how opening the first 7.2 miles will affect traffic.
Long-term, state officials say, the roadway will provide a far speedier link between two economic growth corridors: Interstate 270, with its job centers, and Interstate 95, with its access to Baltimore-Washington International Airport.
But for environmental groups who opposed the project and many residents who soon will have thousands of vehicles streaming past their bedroom windows, the ICC is a costly mistake.
Joe and Donna Simon lost one-third of their property to the ICC. "We had complete privacy here," he says. "It was completely quiet. That's all gone."
As the region's first new major highway in a generation, the ICC links D.C. suburbs where many people travel between home and work without ever heading into the District. Traffic on the first segment is projected to build to 21,500 vehicles daily over the next 12 months.
The first stretch, which ICC officials said was built within its $478 million budget, will carry traffic between I-270 in Gaithersburg and Norbeck Road, just east of Georgia Avenue in northern Silver Spring. It is expected to attract residents from Olney, Howard County and eastern Montgomery who commute to the job-rich I-270 corridor. While the toll road covers only a section of that commute, it will allow drivers to bypass the slowest part - winding, two-lane roads such as Muncaster Mill Road that become bumper-to-bumper during the morning and evening rush hours.
Tolls, which kick in March 7 after a two-week free trial period, will be 60 cents to $1.45 for passenger vehicles, depending on the time of day. Those prices will increase to up to $6.15 to travel the entire 18.8-mile highway after it opens to Interstate 95 in Prince George's by spring 2012. The ICC toll rates are among the highest in the United States.
While motorists won't feel the full benefits until the entire highway opens, state officials say those using the first segment will cut their morning rush-hour travel time from 23 minutes to seven. Those who don't want to pay a toll will see a reduction in traffic on nearby local roads as others increasingly opt for the ICC, state officials said.
Sam McNamee, who runs a sign manufacturing company in Gaithersburg, said the tolls "are a little too high," but he plans to use the first segment several times a week.
"I have clients in Prince George's and Howard County, and I just see this saving me a tremendous amount of time on the road," McNamee said. "If it saves me 20 minutes on a one-hour drive, then it's definitely going to be worth it."
Ray McKenzie, a Gaithersburg lawyer, said using just part of the ICC will cut his drive time to the Laurel ice rink where he coaches youth hockey three evenings a week. He also hopes it will coax potential legal clients in Howard County, Baltimore and Laurel to make the trip to his office.
"They're only 25 miles from me,"McKenzie said, "but it seems like eons to them because of the indirect route that they need to take to get here."
The popularity of the first section likely won't answer the question debated since the highway was first proposed in the 1950s: whether the ICC's savings in travel times will be worth its $2.56-billion construction cost and the toll it has taken on Montgomery and Prince George's streams, wetlands and wildlife, as well as people living along its path.
State officials said they expect to collect enough ICC toll revenue to cover the road's annual operating and maintenance costs. As it typically does when building new facilities, the Maryland Transportation Authority will use toll collections from across the state to cover the ICC construction's financing costs, officials said.
Motorists using Maryland's other toll highways, bridges and tunnels soon might have to pay an average 75 cents extra, in part to help the cash-strapped state pay debt service on $1.2 billion in bonds issued to finance ICC construction. The state also will have to spend about $87 million of its federal highway funds - about 15 percent of its recent annual federal allotments - on other ICC debt payments every year through fiscal 2019. Another $51 million in federal highway funds must be paid in fiscal 2020.
Those who have paid the highest price have lost homes and parts of back yards. Construction decimated the 60-year-old Derwood neighborhood of Cashell Estates, where the state used eminent domain to buy and bulldoze nine out of 20 houses. Remaining homes were left isolated on opposite sides of concrete sound barriers.
Hundreds of other homes along the route used to back up to a wide swath of woods that the state owned as highway right-of-way. During the decades when ICC plans stalled, the land became de facto public parks where people played and walked their dogs. Those homes now look out on brown stucco sound walls and enormous green highway signs.
An eight-foot sound wall stands just beyond a bare patch where Joe and Donna Simon once tended three flower beds. The ICC's overhead lights cast a glow on their back yard, and an upstairs bedroom looks out onto bright lights from a nearby ICC underpass.
On a recent evening, their back yard in the Winters Run subdivision in Derwood was so quiet that only the sound of Joe Simon's boots crunching in snow broke the silence. Suddenly, the loud rumble of a construction truck downshifting as it headed beneath the ICC overpass nearly drowned out his voice. He said he can't imagine what 21,500 vehicles a day will sound like.
Simon, a retired manager, said he has asked the state to make the sound wall behind his home higher. He said it's about five feet shorter than what was included in plans highway officials showed him. Those plans also didn't show that he would see ICC lights from his kitchen sink and dining room table, he said. The Simons bought their home in 1973, when the ICC was projected to follow a different route.
With the towering oaks and maples that once buffered his home cleared for the ICC, Joe Simon said, "We hear the wind hit the house."
Ray Feldmann, spokesman for the ICC construction, said the height of the Simons' sound wall meets state requirements for the amount of traffic noise it must reduce.
Melinda Peters, the ICC construction's project director, said highway officials always planned to open the road in two stages. Doing so allows the state to begin collecting critical toll revenue while providing traffic relief on side roads as soon as possible, she said.
"We don't want seven miles of road sitting there complete when people can benefit from it," Peters said.
But some residents near the temporary eastern end say the staged opening will swamp Georgia Avenue and Norbeck Road as thousands of vehicles try to reach and exit the ICC. Engineers have long rated the overburdened intersection as "failing," and local residents say they already sit through three to four cycles of traffic signals during rush hour.
State officials have said the ICC will increase traffic on Norbeck between Georgia and Layhill Road by 14 percent and on Georgia by 13 percent.
Paul Jarosinski, transportation chair for the Greater Olney Civic Association, said state highway officials have assured local communities that, because of improvements made to Georgia and Norbeck, the intersection will be "no worse" after the ICC opens. "We don't buy that," Jarosinski said. "If a road is at capacity in 2007 and you're adding 13,600 vehicles to that road, you don't have to be a traffic engineer to realize that won't work."
Peters said the county will adjust the timing on traffic signals in the area if there are backups.
"We've committed to continue monitoring that area," she said.
The ICC, which also will be known as Route 200, is Maryland's first all-electronic toll road. With no toll booths, payment will be collected at highway speeds via vehicles' EZ-Pass transponders. Those without a transponder will be mailed a "notice of toll due" and charged a $3 service fee. That fee will be waived until April 6, officials said.
Maryland transportation authority officials said they can't predict the ICC's popularity because they expect it will take several months for drivers to try the new road and decide how often the time saved is worth the toll. They have said they will keep the ICC free-flowing, even if it means discouraging some drivers by raising tolls.
John B. Townsend II, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, said he believes the tolls will make the ICC "an acquired taste." Many motorists are likely to use it only when they can expense the toll to their employer or when they absolutely must get somewhere - say, to the airport - by a particular time, he said.
"We don't think just because you build it people will come," Townsend said. "But a lot of people in that area have few options. . . . When you're talking about people spending 25 to 45 minutes stuck in traffic every day, it's not a panacea, but it's an aspirin you can take for your headache."
Environmentalists who pushed unsuccessfully for a transit alternative to the ICC say the highway might provide some short-term traffic relief. However, they say other highway construction or improvement projects, including the widening of I-270 in the late 1980s, have shown roads quickly fill up with new traffic from the car-dependent sprawl the highways encourage.
David Hauk, past Montgomery chair of the Maryland Sierra Club, said he's skeptical that politicians will be willing to hike tolls to keep the ICC free-flowing.
"I want to hold people accountable who are saying things like the ICC will fix congestion on the Beltway or on I-270 or on roads paralleling the ICC," Hauk said. "We intend to follow up on that three, four or five years from now and see if that happened."